On the Courage it Takes to Get Married – Try Not to Cry

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This is one of the best pieces of writing on the institution of marriage – on the level of commitment and sheer courage required – that I’ve ever encountered. It also happens to be the speech my best man gave at my wedding eleven years ago. I don’t think he would mind me mentioning his name. He’s an actor named Colin Cunningham. You might know him from Falling Skies, Stargate SG1, or about a hundred other movies and shows. He’s also a writer, as you will see.

His parents and mine knew each other in Ireland, and since the Irish tell their kids to call all their friends “aunt” and “uncle”, we grew up thinking we were related somehow. The adventures we had, as kids and adults, could fill a library.

One of the things we share is a sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, and even his wedding speech was not spared it. But it still works, perhaps because of the contrast it provides against the story’s depth. You can skim over his obligatory praise of me if you want. I won’t mind. It gets more interesting as it goes along.

Enjoy! And if you’re married, be proud that you are among the most courageous.

“The great romantic, Leo Bascallia once wrote, ‘What love we’ve given, we’ll have forever. What love we fail to give will be lost for all eternity.’ I believe just after that he shot himself in the face. But I digress.

Friends, honored guests . . . and people sitting at the weird, kind of ‘not really any of the above’ table . . . 

I’ll try not to lament on how I met Mark Rickerby, our anecdotal childhood, nor the honor it is for me to be here tonight. This is not a tribute. Mark’s not dead. He’s just getting married.

Neither am I here to offer advice on matrimony. I am a bachelor, have never been married and hold my toilet seat up they way our Marines held up the flag at Iwo Jima.

Instead, my role here today as best man (if I be worthy of such a title) is to represent one of the greatest friends I’ve ever known. But also to perhaps ‘introduce’ him to those on Claudia’s side of the aisle that may not know him as well as I.

Mark Rickerby is a friend.
A protector.
A romantic.

Not the ‘bubble bath and chocolate’ kind of romantic, but one of an insatiable quest to find beauty in all things.

A writer.  
A poet.  
A Hemingway rowing through an ocean of tripe.

Mark has always been one who searches out the triumphs of ‘day to day’ to pay tribute to much forgotten. Mark has always thought a little harder, looked a little deeper, and felt a little more.

A man who has battled for such trophies as integrity, bravery, character, respect and honor, words no longer as common in today’s vocabulary, for they are trophies that do not come with a scratch and win, Happy Meal or Diet Coke. They are things to be earned, not granted simply because you exist.

And so, all I can do is tell a few stories that may enlighten you as to who Claudia’s family will be spending Thanksgiving dinner with.

As younger men, Mark and I spent much time traveling about the Greek Isles, and when others were showing how progressive and enlightened they were by going topless, getting tattoos and having their genitals pierced, Mark was sneaking into the Parthenon just as the sun was setting over Athens.

Then, after all the tourists had been ushered back to their hotels and cruise ships, by the light of an Aegean Moon, he would come out of the shadows and take his own personal tour. He’d stand where Aristotle stood, where Socrates once spoke. One more Man pondering the what’s and why’s of life. One more ghost.

For as a younger man, Mark had the wisdom to know that his rights of passage would encompass more than a beer bong. That, and if he wanted to pierce his wiener, well, he could do that right here in West Hollywood.

One morning on the Greek island of Paros, as the college graduates were icing their nipples, Mark pulled me away from the action to visit a local graveyard. As was Mark’s style, his purpose for travel was always far greater than putting notches on a pension’s bedpost.

The small cemetery was old but tidy, nothing incredibly unusual, only this one did have something neither of us had ever seen before. There were small, glass boxes – ‘aquariums’ if you will – at the head of each grave. Some were very old, others current to the times. But what they all had in common was the fact that they all contained personal contents of the deceased. Things such as a pocket watch, photos, medals, etc.

I know it may sound a bit morbid, but bear with me. It was incredible, for these glass boxes were essentially ‘windows’ into their lives, and reminded one of things far greater than any cold headstone ever could.

Well, Mark and I had never seen anything like it. You literally got to know the person that lay before you – their family, friends. It was exceptional.

Having many questions about the place, we looked over to see a lone caretaker tending to a corner at the far end. He was an old guy. Quiet. Just sweeping about the place.

And so, keen for information, we approached the man.  

Respectfully, we began our barrage of questions as to ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what’, etc.  But the old guy spoke NO English and instead just looked at us like we’d just asked him to scrub a lizard or something. He then gestured for us to follow him.

With that, we came to a small headstone and yet another glass box. In it were a couple of old black and white photos. One of a young woman and the other of a young couple.

Mark and I had no idea what it was, or why the man had brought us there. It was then the old man pointed to the ring on his finger, and then pointed back to the glass box.  

He was the man in the photo. And the woman buried there was his wife.  

To this day, I have never seen a sweeter, more profound introduction. This man took a part-time job at a cemetery so that he could be close to the woman he loved.

And it was then I realized . . . marriage is not for the timid. Not for those who seek safety. It is for the most adventurous. The most brave. It takes great strength. Determination. Faith. It is a subscription to things far greater than you are alone. It takes guts.

It takes a romantic.

My trips to Greece basically ended with a container of bad potato salad. But Mark continued on throughout the Mediterranean, throughout Europe…. and finally, to San Juan Capistrano where he met Claudia. And she turned out to be a friend of such beauty that it inspired, perhaps, his greatest adventure of all.

That said, I would like to raise my glass and propose a toast. On behalf of myself, my family, and all who have come together to make this day special.

To Mark and Claudia Rickerby. May God bless you, as we have been blessed through you. My love to you both.”

Little Ways (poem about the end of a love affair)

I wrote this poem decades ago and found it yesterday in an ancient journal inside a forgotten box at the back of a cabinet, but the time and events it describes were not so obscure in my memory. The highest and lowest moments tend to stay in the mind and heart as well as that old box stayed in the cabinet.

I remember reading a poem by Charles Bukowski wherein he attempted to answer the question most commonly asked of him – “How can I become a great writer?” He gave advice in the form of a list, but the only piece of advice that repeated was “Have a stormy love affair.”

Pain makes us think, thinking makes us wise, and wisdom (i.e., lessons learned) gives us something worth writing about. 

Dried up Roses

Little Ways

Again, I lie down tired but empty
as though I have walked a great distance
through cold and dismal streets.
I have grown used to sleeping alone.

Love dies so slowly, in little ways.

Separate, you have given me more
than I ever would have allowed you to
beside me.
Loneliness and regret
are harsh but patient teachers
with cold hands and gentle eyes.

With no more you to hide in, the mirror is too clear.
Every flaw is exposed
and I can’t bear to look for too long.
But when I force myself, for my own good,
a man with haunted eyes looks back at me
and I wonder what compels him
to chase all the goodness from his life.
How much can be learned from the night?
I turn away from the mirror and go on with my day.
And love dies a little more,
but only the amount that living demands.

Six months after you left,
I took your photo from the shelf,
but not from its frame.
I put it, frame and all, in a box,
at the back of a closet.

Today, a little stronger,
I used the frame for a new photo
of some more recent, peaceful moment,
and filed yours away,
to be taken up again sometime, years from now,
when the person pictured there
is little more than a stranger to me,
someone I once cared about.
The laughter and the pain,
the peace and the mayhem
will be all but forgotten.
And the love . . .
it will be dead by then, I suppose.

The bouquet of flowers you collected
hung on the wall until only last week.
I took them down
knowing that what they had represented
had withered along with them.

In reality, the colors
created in that long-ago springtime
faded the moment you left.
I just refused to notice.

Gathering dust, they hung on the wall,
a museum piece from some happier time.
They were brittle in my hands
and some of the buds crumbled to the floor.
I walked to the trash but,
cursing myself, my heart,
I stopped, unable to throw them away.
I put them in a vase instead
as if they were still alive
knowing it was not healthy,
knowing I should move on,
take another chance, etcetera, etcetera.
I knew, but I put them in a vase anyway
on the shelf where your photo used to be
to be ignored for just a little while longer.

Love dies so slowly,
so slowly,
in little ways.

Because if it happened all at once,
we would be swallowed up by darkness
and crushed beneath all that tragedy.

The Withered, Old Stick (love poem)

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In my garden, there was a withered, old stick.
It was a beautiful flower, before it got sick.
I tried to pluck it but, with a defiant stance,
My wife said, “Don’t, honey. Give it a chance.”

Many months passed and the stick didn’t grow.
It just stood there laughing at me and my hoe.
(A gardening tool, not my wife. Come on!) 
But I kept my word and left the old stick alone.
A full year passed and it still hadn’t grown.

Then one morning while pruning a plant nearby,
Something green to my right attracted my eye.
A delicate bud had come up through the earth.
The old stick was not dead! It was a rebirth!

All that time, my wife never once gave up hope.
I called her to see it, though I felt like a dope.
I should have known she was right – for, you see,
Long, long ago, she did the same thing with me.

Words Are Not Enough (Love Poem)

I wrote this for my wife before we got married. We have been married now for eleven years, and she has given me two glorious orbs of light from heaven (daughters), another gift I am regularly rendered wordless by and can never possibly repay her for. Believe in love, and fight for it when it arrives. It’s worth it.

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We always say the words “I love you”
aren’t strong enough.
They aren’t.
Sometimes an emotion is so strong,
words can’t capture it.
The greatest poet can only come close.
Words can’t express love, not really.
Words are tangible, feelings aren’t.
But I am overwhelmed by my love for you.
So, like all the other fools
down through the ages,
I have to try . . .

I love you
like parched earth loves the rain
which awakens the seeds
deeply buried there,
dormant and forgotten,
gently urging them into blossom.
Thus, my hopes spring into life again
through the hardened soil
of my resignation.
That’s how I love you.

I love you
like a homeless man
loves the first rays of the morning sun
after a cold night, uncovered.

I love you
like a soldier, who,
though scarred and bitter
from all he has seen,
hears the laughter of children
and laughs himself
forgetting it all
for that moment.

And sometimes I love you
the way a frightened child
loves the nightlight by his bed.

You have become the mirror of my soul.

You have inspired me to rise above myself
further than anyone ever has before.

You have reminded me that goodness exists,
not by lecturing or judging
but simply by being yourself,
the way a flower shares its beauty
effortlessly
with all who behold it.

So what does such a person do?
A person with a heart so full,
achingly full,
of compassion for the suffering?

A person whose spirit
overflows with generosity
like a natural spring;

A person who Jesus Christ Himself
would point to proudly and say,
“There. She knows what I meant.
Watch her and she will show you The Way.”

What does such a person do?
The only thing she can imagine doing.
She becomes a nurse
so that she can do His work every day.

So that the sick, the infirm and the dying
can see Him in her eyes and be comforted.

So that those whom the world has forgotten
can know in their final days or moments
that somebody cared
and their last glimpse
of this tired and jaded world
will be of something good, sweet, untainted.
They will look into the eyes of a saint
and their passing will be lighter.

I know, you see.
These are not just words.
I know the works you are capable of.
I know the power you possess
in your eyes, your hands, your voice.
I know how fortunate
those in your care will be
because of the times
when you saved me from utter despair;
because of the times
when you helped me to my feet
after suffering injuries
that no x-ray could detect,
injuries of the spirit.
You helped me up
at the lowest moments of my life,
dusted me off, and guided me forward.

How do I thank you for doing nothing less
than reaching into hell and pulling me out?
Once again, words are not enough.

So I’ll just say “I love you”
with this small, human voice,
and hope you understand.

– Mark Rickerby

What Happened to Peace and Love?

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There’s no way to say any of the following without sounding like a crotchety old carbunkle, but for all you youngsters today who may not know it, back in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a real, serious, dedicated movement that centered around coming together as friends, seeing beyond differences to the heart and soul, ending war once and for all, etc.
We have gradually lost sight of that goal as time has passed. It’s like we’re all standing among the ruins of a half-built Utopia without the will or ability to complete it. In fact, many people seem to be determined to widen political/religious/social/racial divisions and wipe out everything not exactly like themselves. (Exactly what the Islamic terrorists are guilty of, ironically.)
I was a kid in the 60’s, but I was befriended by a group of hippies, and let me tell you, they lived their philosophies. They made me feel like a prince at a time when I felt pretty small and insignificant. I told that story in Chicken Soup for the Soul’s book called Random Acts of Kindness.
I’m not saying we should all become hippies, or even that they were right about everything. For instance, I don’t respect the fact that they wanted to put limits on everything except their own behavior. But what can’t be questioned is their level of commitment to peace and love. I wonder if we’ll ever get back to that ideal of seeking understanding and compassion. We can’t have anything unless we first actually want it, and wanting is useless without action. In other words, if we don’t define what we want, there’s no way to ever achieve it.
There will always be evil and naked aggression that needs to be squashed by non-pacifists. (ISIS, Al Quaeda, the Taliban, Nazi’s, fascists, etc.) But it’s equally and maybe even more brave to seek peace in our daily lives with people we have nothing in common with, to try to connect as human beings and see past (or not even notice at all) our racial/sexual/economic/educational/religious divisions, and all the other ways we divide ourselves from others. After all, the first requirement for doing evil to another is to think of them as something separate from ourselves, or even non-human. That’s why the first thing Hitler and every tyrant like him did to win over the mindless masses was to label the group he wanted to persecute as “vermin” that needed to be exterminated. This is how he convinced men who weren’t born killers to murder women and children. 
Every measure of peace must be attempted before breaking out the guns, or fists. At least the hippies were brave enough to try, you know?
Here are a few songs from back in the day that illustrate my point. Feel free to message me with your favorite.
Why Can’t We Be Friends – War
Stop Children What’s That Sound – Buffalo Springfield
Love is the Answer – England Dan and John Ford Coley
Everyday People – Sly and the Family Stone
Lean on Me – Bill Withers
Eve of Destruction – Barry McGuire
The Times They Are a-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Blowin’ in the Wind – Peter, Paul & Mary 
Give Peace a Chance – John Lennon
Some Mother’s Son – The Kinks
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Journey to God (poem)

 

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I know most won’t read this because it is very, very, very long, so to the one or two who do, pat yourself on the back for not being afflicted with the A.D.D. the Internet has stricken 99% of the adult world with. I really opened a vein for it, so I think it will be worth your time. Thanks.

And to those who think a rhyming poem can’t be profound, please get out your Ouija board, contact Hank Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Bob Frost and Billy Shakespeare (et al) and take it up with them. 

Journey to God

An old man passed away one night.
He’d had a good, long life.
and all that he regretted
was leaving his beautiful wife.

To others, her glory had faded
as the years had claimed their fee
but to him, she was just as lovely
as she was at twenty-three.

He saw his high school sweetheart
and remembered her sweet, shy smile.
He saw his bride in a gown of white
walking toward him down the aisle.

He saw her asleep in a hospital bed
as she cradled their newborn child.
He saw her quiet and thoughtful,
then passionate and wild.

He was so possessed by thoughts of her,
he hardly noticed he had passed.
He was still alive in spirit
and all his pain was gone at last.

He was surprised at how easy it was to die,
like shedding worn-out clothes
but even more to see himself below
as his spirit slowly rose.

He felt no urge or instinct
to return and get back in
for he knew the body on the bed
was never really him.

It was always just a vehicle,
now broken down and old.
What he’d walked around in all his life
was just a vehicle for his soul.

He had to laugh for, being dead,
he had never felt so great.
He couldn’t help but realize
this was a natural state.

Death was not the end of life,
just one more stanza in the poem.
It was not a sad departure
but a return to his true home.

But the cries of his dear wife
would not let him leave this plane.
He could not bear to leave her
while she was in such pain.

He saw her cry and hold him
as he lay still in their bed
and heard her whisper, “Rest, my love”
as he floated overhead.

He wanted to hold her and let her know
that he was free from pain.
He wished he could tell her not to cry
for they’d soon be together again.

But the wall between life and death
proved too thick and strong to breach.
The woman he’d held every day of his life,
for now, was out of reach.

So he cried, too, thinking of her
so frail and helpless there,
alone with his lifeless body
in the home they used to share.

Though at first he was elated
to be free of that painful shell,
he longed to return to tell her
that his soul was alive and well.

So as he floated like a feather
through the purple, misty air,
his sorrow and loneliness mounted
and he fell into despair.

When from far away, through the haze,
a strange melody reached his ears,
sung by a chorus of angels
to soothe and calm his fears.

He followed the voices, clear and sweet,
and could hardly believe the sight.
Radiant beings with glowing eyes
were guiding him toward the light!

“Do you remember me, John?” one of them asked,
“We were buddies in World War Two.”
“Do you remember me, John?” another voice called,
“You used to call me Grandpa Lou.”

“Hey, John! It’s me! Your brother, Joey!
I came here when you were ten.
I’ll bet you never thought
you would hear my voice again.”

This went on for hours and hours,
spirits wanting to say hello;
reunions with those he had loved so well
in the world and the life below.

His emotions were tossed seeing those he had lost
in the maelstrom of earthly life
where often the good are taken too soon
and heartache and sorrow is rife.

But there were two others he struggled to see
till he finally grew panicked and sad.
He said, “Wait a minute! Somebody tell me –
where are my mom and my dad?”

His brother whispered, “John, don’t worry.
They’re here and they’re happy you came.”
Then he saw them, bathed in golden light,
and their faces were just the same.

He cried with joy as he hugged them and said,
“Oh, I have missed you so.”
For years, he wished he could see them again.
Now, he could not let them go.

He was happy to hold them, to look in their eyes,
and laugh as they had before.
He was relieved that death is no different from life.
There’s just no pain anymore.

He told them he’d grown to appreciate
all that they’d done and said,
and as nice as it was to tell them now,
wished he’d told them in life instead.

But like most, he denied the fact of death
and refused to believe they could die.
He never allowed it to enter his mind
as the months and the years flew by.

Till he found himself standing beside their graves
and it finally sank in they were gone.
He was angry at God who allowed death to be.
It all seemed so senseless and wrong.

“Why are we given these feelings?” he had cried,
“And love that grows deeper with time?
If we’re bound to lose it all in the end,
then creating this world was a crime.”

And just the way he had wished
he could soothe his wife’s dismay,
his parents heard his anguished cry
and wished the same that day.

For they had already found their way home
to the fountain from which we all spring.
They had freed themselves of their mortal shells
and their souls had taken wing.

Now here he was, with them again,
and his joy could not be contained.
If only he’d known death was only a door,
his faith would never have waned.

“If you want to swim in the ocean,” they said,
“Just think it and you will be there.
Your body can’t slow you down anymore.
You’re as light and free as the air.”

“Remember those Sunday’s down by the sea?
Those summers that seemed without end?
Just close your eyes and imagine that time
and we’ll all be back there again!”

But he worried that God would not let him stay
and that all this was too good to last.
He feared that he would be banished
for his faltering faith in the past.

But his family and friends just smiled and said,
“John, you have nothing to fear.
A few things they said about heaven down there
are far from the truth up here.”

They said you had to go to church
for God to hear your prayer
but God can hear the softest whisper
anytime and anywhere.

You search for Christ was constant.
You fought for your faith since birth.
And the kindness you always showed in life
is the sole measure of anyone’s worth.

God doesn’t demand blind submission
or condemn you for questions or doubts.
It’s men that said God was vengeful,
a dictator who bullies and shouts.

You thought you needed pure faith
or God wouldn’t hear your call
but the times God tried to help you most
were when you had no faith at all.

You thought that sins were punished
with torture and endless pain
but the threat of hell is not for God
but for the church’s gain.

We don’t need a hell to burn in
or a devil to torture our minds.
Judgment takes place in our conscience
when we’re shown God’s vast design.

It’s not only the enemy of man
who compels us to do wrong.
Good and bad are side by side
within us, all along.

It all comes down to choices –
light or dark, right or wrong,
and they make or break our happiness
in life below and life beyond.

Every sin comes back to haunt us,
no matter how big or how small
and the pain we caused in earthly life
returns to us, after all.

We each have our own individual hell
and a battle none but us can fight.
Millions of souls are still spinning out there,
trapped in perpetual night.

For until they cure their own blindness,
in darkness their souls will bide.
God doesn’t force us to come back home
but patiently calls us inside.

Some men look at evil
and label it “God’s will”
but God gave life, and death for rest.
Only men can kill.

And some say God is dead
or he was never really there.
How else, they ask, can one explain
so many unanswered prayers?

How else can one explain
the pain and horror on the earth?
This has been the central question
since the dawn of mankind’s birth.

But like a mortal parent,
raising a baby all alone,
God did his best to teach us
then left us on our own.

And like a meddling father
who a child would push away,
God can’t live our lives for us
and he can’t cushion the way.

To take every hint of pain from life
would remove our right to choose.
If you really stop to think it through,
we’d gain less than we’d lose.

Some see the misery of human life
and ask God what it means
but the only way He could end it
would be to make us all machines.

So God does not stop evil,
though it hurts Him to let it be.
He can’t both rule with an iron hand
and allow us to be free.

The place that folks call “hell”
where sinners meet their fate
is distance from the light of God
and time to contemplate.

For once you feel God’s presence,
all your pain and sorrows cease.
All your questions then are answered
and your heart is filled with peace.

Men bent the words of Jesus
To control the multitude.
They took his divine message
and made it low and crude.

Men have always struggled for power,
from the caves to the streets of L.A.
Why wouldn’t they twist the word of God
and tell us we need them to pray?

The ring kissing, Hail Mary’s, and rosary beads,
right down to the Pope’s princely nod,
at best, is only good theater,
a bureaucracy between man and God.

You see, God is not some tyrant
who needs a chain of command.
You find God in the eyes of the aged
and in a baby’s hand.

You find God in a sunset
so pretty it makes you cry.
You find God in every warm embrace
and in a lover’s sigh.

You find God in generosity,
and in the meek and mild.
You find God in any gentle soul
who kneels to help a child.

You find God in the soft, pink light
when a new day has begun
and in the flower by the window
as it opens to the sun.

And yes, you find God in the dying
as the light fades in their eyes
and their spirit slowly slips away
to its true home in the skies.

God is in every one of us.
We can feel it when we’re young.
Then we’re snatched up by the world
and into the fray we’re flung.

We grow cynical and weary
and forget all that we once knew
when the peace and joy God gave us
has lost its native hue.

Oh, if only they knew, John! If only they knew!
What a wonderful world they might win
if they could only see past their differences
to the spirit that dwells within.”

He was shocked by these new revelations.
His mind spun around and around.
The chains that tethered his spirit in life
Lay shattered in pieces on the ground.

His parents said, “Welcome to heaven.”
He felt a peace he never thought he would know
and though his mortal life had just ended,
it seemed like a long time ago.

Then a hush fell all through the firmament.
Impossible colors filled the air, far and near.
His peace grew so deep, he sobbed out loud
and his mother whispered, “Look! God is here!”

– Mark Rickerby

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The Guru (short story)

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Some light reading for your weekend – a short story about a woman who plans to destroy a man who broke her heart years earlier but is stunned silent when she finally has her chance. (I can’t say how or why without ruining the story.) It’s not autobiographical, mainly because I’m not as much of a big shot as the guy in the story. It’s about betrayal and forgiveness, two themes I have always been interested in as a writer. I hope you enjoy it.

The Guru

Tamara’s favorite bookstore, The Seeker Sanctuary, the one place on earth she felt truly at home, had been defiled. As she approached it that Sunday morning, she was assaulted by the smiling face of an old boyfriend on a window advertisement. The text below it read, “Meet best-selling author and self-help guru J.C. Daniels, signing books today at three!”

“J.C. . . what a pretentious jerk,” she thought.
His name was John, or Johnny as he called himself back then, but she figured he abbreviated his first and middle names to sound like a serious writer. She couldn’t help noticing his rising success and had done her best to ignore it. Every time she saw his sappy grin, the bile rose in her throat, and the memories bombarded her, none pleasant. Seeing him before, she was able to close the magazine or change the channel, but seeing his phony smile in the window of her home away from home was like a punch in the stomach.

She mumbled “nothing is sacred” as she walked in and saw Debbie working at the sales counter. She had become a good friend over the years. Everyone there had. Maybe it wasn’t too late to convince them to cancel the book signing. “If they only knew,” she thought.

She had been coming here at least once a week for over ten years. They knew she had dated Johnny in high school but she spared them the depressing details. She had always felt obligated to show her best to them because of the nature of the store – self-improvement, spirituality, conquering pain and seeking spiritual advancement. She didn’t want them to know that she still held so much resentment toward him. But this was an outrage. A special circumstance. Once they heard the truth about the wonderful, syrupy sweet “J.C. Daniels”, they would surely cancel his event. She was about to speak when Debbie saw her coming, smiled her usual Ohio farm girl smile and enthusiastically greeted her.
“Hey, Tamara! That book you ordered came in this morning!”

Debbie was one of those people who was unreasonable happy all the time. Even the grouchiest customers fell at her feet. She was the perfect person to work at a metaphysical bookstore, where the goal of perfect peace was always pretended at but rarely reached completely and consistently. A walking party, Debbie gave all those seekers a goal to strive for.

“Hey!” Debbie said, “Did you see who’s going to be here today? Your old boyfriend.”

Tamara again felt the impulse to blurt out every bad memory she had of him, but she only smiled back at Debbie and said, “Yeah. That’s great.” She then paid for her book (a romance novel) and retired to her favorite chair by the window to read a few chapters. She purposely sat without a view of his photo, and tried to put it, to put him, out of her mind. She had begun to forget about him when she heard a young woman say, “I can’t believe J.C. Daniels is gonna be here today! His books have helped me so much!”
“Me, too!” Debbie replied. “It took forever to get him here. I can’t wait.”

Again, she wanted to yell, “I hate to break this to you fawning sycophants, but he’s an asshole!” And again, she bit her lip, not wanting to be seen as the bitter, jilted ex. Debbie and the other woman continued to praise Johnny and his writing. She couldn’t take anymore and walked outside. She window-shopped for a while but couldn’t shake the dark cloud of J.C. Daniels, the phony, rotten son of a bitch. She could write her own book on the “real” J.C. Daniels. What a bestseller that would be, she thought. A tell-all. She seriously considered it for a moment before remembering what she had read in dozens of books over the years – that resentment is poison to the spirit, that the only true path to peace is forgiveness. One of her favorite quotes, in fact, was, “Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

She knew all that, dammit, but there it was again. She had to admit to herself that his success bothered her. Despite all her attempts to let go, to forgive, to free herself of blaming him or anyone for her unhappiness and loneliness, she still wanted revenge. She would be happier if he was living in a roach-infested hovel, eating dog food out of an old shoe with a stick. That’s what the bastard deserved.

She thought about all the promises he made when they sat on her mother’s front porch, holding hands, when they were both eighteen. The world began and ended in his eyes then. He seemed so sincere before she found out about the other girls he was sleeping with, before the child she aborted because he just wasn’t around, before he abandoned her, knowing every secret pain she had hidden from everyone but him. It was a foul betrayal. Not the only one in her life, just the first and the biggest, the one that set the others in motion, the one no man she had known since could repair, the one that had ruined her life, and her trust.

Before long, she was in a full-swing pity party. Every memory was like a scab being torn off. She went outside and sat on a bench, buried in despair, eighteen again, as the happy energy of this fall day on the busy boulevard swirled around her. Even the autumn colors that usually soothed her soul had no effect. In fact, they represented all she had lost over the years, because of him. He was married with children. She was still alone. He was successful. She had bounced from job to job but never found her true calling. It wasn’t fair, she thought. It should be the other way around. Aren’t the good rewarded and the wicked punished in every movie, book, and fairy tale? Maybe that’s why people need them so much. People know the real world is usually just the opposite. Bastards prosper. Criminals get away with it. Murderers live long, happy lives while their victims rot in the ground. Well, she thought, not this time. She was tired of forgiving. She was tired of seeking the higher ground. Maybe revenge was exactly what she needed to finally move on with her life and stop pretending she was okay. There’s more than one kind of murder. She would go to that book signing today, and she would tell everyone exactly who Mr. Marvelous really was. She would have her revenge, even if it ruined her reputation. It dawned on her that she had been just as much of a phony as him, pretending she was okay all these years. That was about to end.

She wasn’t worried about him recognizing her because she had gained weight and cut her hair, no longer the beach bunny he knew and pretended to love twenty-five years earlier. She went home, put a baseball cap and glasses on, returned to the store and sat in the back, just in case. Before long, every chair was filled and he came to the table. The store owner announced him. The audience cheered. He read a few chapters of his new book. Everyone smiled adoringly and nodded in agreement as he read. One woman even gasped several times at the glorious brilliance of his insights. Tamara entertained the idea of finding something heavy and caving her skull in the next time she gasped, but her contempt was eased by the avalanche of truth that was about to come down on J.C. and all his clueless fans.

She figured she would start her outing of him with “let me tell you the truth about J.C. Daniels”, then parade the list of his offenses against her and watch with glee as he tried to wriggle his way out of it, the worm that he was. For a moment, she felt like Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. She had become the “crazy bitch” she never thought she would. But now that she was giving into this dark impulse, it felt good, and she suddenly understood why women went off the deep end. The freedom of just not giving a damn anymore. When someone feels that not only their dignity but years of their life have been stolen, and the person who stole them not only doesn’t care but is prospering – well, let’s just say there’s a place for revenge, and it is just as sweet as they say it is.

The question and answer portion of the event had begun, but she was too lost in her own thoughts to pay much attention. She waited for her chance for payback at long last. But as she raised her hand, another woman asked, “Where did you learn everything you write about? Who were your masters?”
Oh, this I have to hear, she thought. When she had known him all those decades ago, he wouldn’t listen to anyone, and never read anything not assigned to him in school. She couldn’t wait to hear how deep his hypocrisy would go. In fact, it would steel her resolve for the verbal ass-kicking she was about to deliver.

But he didn’t answer this question as quickly as the others. In fact, he was silent so long, the crowd became uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke.

“If I have any wisdom, it comes from being an absolute fool. Any peace my words are able to give others arose from the worst kind of emotional pain imaginable. They were forged in the fire of a personal hell. Aristotle called philosophy adversity’s sweet milk, and I’ve had plenty of adversity, all self-imposed. I’ve hurt people. I’m responsible for a death – a baby I should have been man enough to support, but wasn’t.”

Tamara’s heart jumped. He continued.

“I’ve hurt people. Good people. One in particular who would have made a noble wife and loving mother. If I’m good now, it’s because I was bad before. If I’m smart now, it’s because I was an imbecile for years. I don’t write these books because I’m better than anyone else. I write them because I’ve been incredibly stupid. Maybe they’re my penance, my attempt to redeem myself. I’ve haunted my own life, returned to the places before the mistakes were made because I couldn’t go back in time and change what I did there, places that had become sacred because I made a sacrifice there – a self-sacrifice, but not the good kind – cutting my own throat at the altar of my own ego. I once sat on the porch of an abandoned house, alone – a porch I used to sit on with my high school sweetheart. I cried and prayed for her happiness, and forgiveness. I looked over the back yard fence and saw her first car – a car that took us on a hundred youthful adventures – abandoned, lying dead in the grass, tires as flat and empty as my soul felt. I paid for every bit of pain I caused her a thousand times over. Even if we weren’t meant to be together, she didn’t deserve to be lied to. She was a child of God, after all. Unless someone is a mindless animal, a sociopath, every hurtful word or deed must be atoned for. Sometimes what others call wisdom comes from that atonement, but only the so-called wise man knows the price he paid for it. Nobody gets away with anything.”

Tamara could hardly breathe beneath the weight of the discovery that he had suffered, too. She had never really considered it a possibility.

Someone asked if he had ever tried to contact her. He said he called several times but she hung up on him, and that he sent her a letter to her last known address but it was returned by the post office. Tamara remembered those first few tortured phone calls he made after she discovered his infidelity, and she believed he had written because she had moved so many times in those heartbroken years, running from herself and her own misery. Moving repeatedly had been part of her seeking.

“What about Facebook?” another asked.
“She doesn’t exist online,” he replied. “I have no idea where she is.”

Tamara knew this was true, too. She had purposely shunned social media because of its inherent invasion of privacy, and because she didn’t want to feel typical, but in doing so, she had made it impossible for anyone to find her. She realized she had contributed to her own loneliness by isolating herself. The important and size of what she planned to do began to diminish as she wondered who or what was to blame for all her years alone – him or her bitterness. He had never come to her house and drawn the curtains closed. She had done that herself.
“It was like she vanished,” he said.

And she had vanished. The girl he knew had been dead for decades, the one who thought she could do anything, be anyone. She had destroyed herself as much as she thought he had destroyed her. Threw out the baby with the bathwater, as the saying goes.
“Look at yourself now,” she thought, “unrecognizable, sitting in the back, hiding.”
She had hidden from the world for so many years, hiding from him was easy. She had even physically hidden who she was under the weight she had gained.

Another woman in the group said she wondered if her old boyfriends ever thought of her. He answered, “Most men don’t have an outlet like writing, like I do. Most are uncomfortable even talking about past loves, but that doesn’t mean they have forgotten. Believe me, men remember just about every woman they were intimate with, and the longer they were with them, the better their memory is. It may not seem so if they have a wife and family, and they may never allow those memories to enter their world for the sake of preserving it, but if they were asked, they would remember. Of course they would. Every person we share our lives with is sacred, and become even more sacred as time passes and death draws nearer, as we look back on how we have lived, and remember who we were on the way to becoming who we are, who we were always meant to be. A singer named Bob Seger put it very well – ‘Sometimes at night, I see their faces. I feel the traces they left on my soul.’ If we treated people well, we feel integrity. If we didn’t, we feel despair. The only cure is to make sincere amends, or attempt to. Of course, it’s a pyrrhic victory because the mistake can never be erased and so much was lost, but it’s better than wallowing. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”

Tamara was surprised to feel her anger turn to something closer to sadness. Not for herself, or even for him, but for the human condition so common in the world – how so many must cause so much damage before they can acquire anything resembling wisdom, or peace of mind.

A man in the gallery asked, “What would you say to her if she were here today?”
She shuffled in her seat uncomfortably. If they only knew. If he only knew.
“I would say I’m sorry, of course,” he replied. “I would say I paid for every pain I caused her. I would say I’m certain I suffered as much or more than she did. And I would thank her for deepening and expanding my soul in the ways that only love, regret and sorrow can. Her influence is on every page of my books.”

Tamara was surprised to feel tears welling in her eyes. The last thing she was expecting to feel when she came to the bookstore that day was compassion. The owner announced the end of the Q and A session and said J.C. would sign his new book. A line began to form. Tamara went outside, stood on the sidewalk and wiped her eyes. A cool breeze kicked red and yellow leaves up around her feet, filled her lungs and stirred her soul in a way it hadn’t moved in years.

She looked at his photo on the poster in the window again. The smile she had hated so much before, that she had written off as falsely sincere, appeared entirely different, for she now saw it for what it was. As much as she still hated to admit it, it was the smile of a man who had conquered himself, a smile wrested from the grip of the despair that threatens to consume each human being, for different reasons.

She worried that she only felt better about him because she knew now how much he had suffered over her, but decided her heart was so much lighter because she had found out he was not the inhuman monster she always thought he was. She just needed to know that there was some justice in the world, that she wasn’t alone in her suffering. That’s all she ever needed to know. She planned to deliver some long-overdue revenge but discovered he had already done it for her. As he said, nobody gets away with anything.

She looked through the window at him, signing books, smiling at his readers. He sensed her gaze and looked up. Their eyes met. He smiled and looked away, then looked back again, recognizing her under the years, the extra weight, the shorter hair, everything. He stood up, forgetting the inscription and the person in front of him. She felt tears well in her eyes again and a small, warm, forgiving smile spread across her face, in spite of herself. He smiled breathlessly back at her. And for that moment, all the pain and years fell away and they were eighteen again – no longer the jerk and the jilted girlfriend, just two human beings struggling to find some happiness in this world. She waved softly. He waved back.

She turned, looked at the fall colors exploding around her, felt the cool, bracing wind on her face, pulled up her collar and walked away from the store, from him, from who she was, and toward whom she would be for every moment of the time that was left.